Did Machen Believe In Ordaining Women?

To anyone familiar with J. Gresham Machen’s biography the words, “Machen and women” will bring two facts to mind: that Machen never married and that he had a particularly intimate relationship with his mother. Much of what we know about Machen comes from the voluminous trove of letters to his mother. His views on segregation (shared in an early letter or two) have gotten him in particular trouble in the era of Wokeness. And in the era of Revoice there is new, if unfounded, speculation about his bachelorhood. And there is ongoing disagreement about the nature of his one (and only?) alleged romance with a Unitarian lady.

The more ecclesial-minded Machenite might well have another question: Where did Machen stand on the issues of women, office, and ordination in presbyterian churches, particularly his own? I, at least, have thought a lot about this murky issue. No biographers have cited comments from Machen on these issues, and if such comments existed, they would loom large in women’s ordination debates that bubble up from time to time in conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Some consider women’s ordination a sort of canary in the confessional presbyterian coal mine: any talk of approving it being viewed as an indicator of faltering biblical fidelity or as symptoms of cultural compromise.

History may be our only helper in discerning Machen’s views, so here’s some history. The northern Presbyterian Church in the USA (in which Machen labored until 1936) first ordained women as deacons, serving equally with men, in 1923, though there may have been a less-formal deaconess role previously allowed or maintained, somewhat like many PCA churches have today. Machen’s opinion on admitting women to the ordained officeriate is unknown. Maybe he was indifferent. Maybe he shared the views of his Princeton colleague, the great B.B. Warfield, who favored some sort of “deaconing women,” to use a Tim Keller term.

More likely, the issue was just not on Machen’s radar…he was busy battling theological liberalism (which he called “a different religion from Christianity”) in his Christian church. He described liberalism this way in his landmark book Christianity and Liberalism which was published the same year (1923) that pious PCUSA elders first laid hands on deaconing women. Machen was fighting for the life of his denomination in the 1920s, so it just may be that “little” things like deacons in skirts seemed insignificant compared to atrocities such as the Auburn Affirmation, which undermined nearly all the essential doctrines of the church. Read More»

Brad Isbell | “Machen vs. Women – A War He Never Fought” | February 20, 2023


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Brad: You concluded, “ Presbyterians of the 21st century will need Machen’s stubbornness and high-minded commitment to doctrine to withstand the coming intersectional-egalitarian onslaught. And they may need an even more robust commitment to biblical polity than the men of Machen’s day were able to muster.” Since you and I are both members of the PCA, do you see an abundance of leaders with these qualities in today’s PCA? If they are squeamish about declaring self-identifying homosexuals unfit for the pulpit, I don’t see much fortitude for the battles you predict.

  2. The PCA is divided between contextualizers and contextualists, I think. The former will look for ways to push the ecclesial-cultural envelope. This explains openness to Side-B and a “no big deal” attitude to female deaconing persons, I think. I am publishing a piece soon on the issue of office and ordination.

Comments are closed.